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Right whales entangled by politics

To researchers’ chagrin, measures that might save more of the rare animals have been held up by the White House.

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“Here’s a crystal clear example of this administration impeding any progress on endangered species that might impact big business,” says Scott Kraus, a leading expert on right whales. “Someone in the vice president’s office apparently has decided that it’s not worth the cost of slowing down ships to save whales.”

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In a new development Aug. 25, the Bush administration proposed watering down the rule, reducing the area affected by the speed limits.

An OMB spokeswoman, Jane Lee, said she could not comment on rules that are undergoing review. “However, we are confident the … process will provide an approach that will achieve our shared goals,” she said. She maintained that the delay did not violate Executive Order 12866, but declined to elaborate.

Unlike their colleagues who study fruit flies or mice, right whale researchers invariably get to know individual whales, even their behavioral tics. The whales live to be 100 or more.

“There’s definitely an emotional component,” says Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium. She cried when she saw Delilah on the beach. She’d been studying her for more than a decade.

The species is particularly hard to study. They travel long distances – from Florida to Nova Scotia and beyond – but not in a predictable migratory pattern. They shy away from people.

That’s where whale poop comes in. Samuel Wasser of the University of Wash­ington adapted fecal sampling techniques he’d developed for studying grizzly bears and elephants. His lab isolates and analyzes not only diet and parasite loads, but also stress, reproductive hormones, and, using DNA, the animal’s identity and family relationships.

“It’s the most abundant animal material in nature, and it’s packed with information,” he says.

The trick: finding whale poop in the few minutes before it sinks. That meant training dogs to sniff them out as they ride in the bow of an open skiff, no mean feat given that the dog has to communicate when the scent is lost and regained so the boat driver can close in on the target. Dr. Wasser trained a tennis-ball-obsessed Rottweiler to do it in exchange for a tennis ball. Other dogs have since been trained to track killer whales.

“One of the dogs we use now was from a pound because he was unmanageable,” Wasser says. “But in pairing detection of fecal samples with the reward of a tennis ball, it channels their motivations and they become really well-behaved dogs.”

DNA samples reveal a struggling population. All calves were born of parents who were more genetically dissimilar than the population’s norm, suggesting that more closely related animals can’t reproduce. This may help explain their slow recovery, says Tim Frasier of the University of Trent in Peter­borough, Ontario, who conducted the analysis.

Dr. Frasier found good news, too. Re­­searchers thought they had sampled the DNA of 70 percent of all male right whales, so they’d expected to identify the fathers of 70 percent of the calves. “Turned out we only had 45 percent of the fath­­ers sampled,” he says. “That means there are more habitat areas that we don’t know about yet.”